Gen­er­ous sum­mer bloom

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Leisure - HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

WHILE you may have been dream­ing, over the past few weeks, of the trop­ics and their hot colours, or of sweetly scented spring flow­er­ing bulbs, we are still in the depths of win­ter. When days are short and dark we all look for ex­cuses, per­haps, to re­main in­doors, hi­ber­nat­ing. A lit­tle ex­er­cise and en­gage­ment now, how­ever, will en­sure re­wards in spring and sum­mer. Prun­ing your hy­drangeas will surely be on your list of win­ter chores.

You may have left the sum­mer blooms of the easy-to-please hy­drangea stand­ing on tall stems to fade evoca­tively into bur­nished bur­gundies and blues. If so, it’s now time to cut back the stalks that flow­ered last sum­mer.

Our grand­moth­ers’ gar­dens could only boast of deep borders of mop­head hy­drangea, which were usu­ally planted on the shaded, south side of the house. These days the genus is any­thing but dowdy as mod­ern breed­ing has given us dozens of glam­orous cul­ti­vars. The only dif­fi­culty is ex­er­cis­ing re­straint, for their im­pact is more dra­matic if sev­eral of the one cul­ti­var are planted en masse, quickly pro­vid­ing a vo­lu­mi­nous ef­fect.

First de­scribed in 1784 as Vibur­num macro­phylla, this gen­er­ous bloomer was re­clas­si­fied in 1830 as Hy­drangea, part of the Hy­drangeaceae fam­ily. The genus con­tains more than 70 species, na­tive to China, Ja­pan and ar­eas around the Hi­malayas, which are most eas­ily iden­ti­fied by their flow­ers. The most com­mon are the mop­heads, or Hy­drangea macro­phylla, which is then bro­ken into sev­eral sub­species.

If your soil is acid the macro­phyl­las will flower blue; if al­ka­line, blooms will be pink. How­ever the vast range of ex­cit­ing new cul­ti­vars means that there is a colour for ev­ery gar­den. Among the newer va­ri­eties the white-flow­er­ing ‘Nym­phe’ has frilled or ser­rated edges. Plant it as a rib through the gar­den, edged with, per­haps, the low­grow­ing white Aga­pan­thus ‘Snow­ball’.

The blooms of the very pop­u­lar lace­caps, part of the macro­phylla species, are in fact dozens of tiny fer­tile flow­ers sur­rounded by clus­ters of showy sepals. Among the most pop­u­lar are the deep blue H. macro­phylla ‘Blue Wave’ and ‘Beaute Ven­do­moise’, which un­furls a pretty pale green-to-pink and deep­ens to li­lac.

The frost-hardy H. aspera var. vil­losa makes a big state­ment with its mauve lace cap flow­ers, and H. ar­borescens has limegreen mop­heads. Its cul­ti­var ‘Annabelle’ is a favourite due to its gor­geous emer­ald­green leaves and voluputous white flow­ers. It does best in cold cli­mates, where it looks par­tic­u­larly smart edged with white freesias, white daylilies or low grow­ing gar­de­nias.

The de­cid­u­ous oak-leaf hy­drangea ( H. quer­ci­fo­lia) her­alds the chang­ing sea­sons with leaves that deepen to bur­gundy in au­tumn. In late spring and sum­mer it flow­ers for weeks with white pan­i­cles. In a cool cli­mate em­ploy the climb­ing H. peti­o­laris to clothe a tree trunk or dec­o­rate a brick wall, or as a ground­cover in­stead of the frost-ten­der Chinese star jas­mine.

Hy­drangeas look won­der­ful edg­ing paths that wan­der through wood­lands of vibur­num, dog­wood, maple and birch. You might fore­ground them with helle­bores: the eas­i­est to grow, Helle­borus ori­en­talis x hy­bridus, with its crushed-silk blooms that hang on for months past their win­ter peak, makes the per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

The de­cid­u­ous H. pan­ic­u­lata, from China and Ja­pan, flow­ers in cream to pink cone-shaped pan­i­cles. You can see it in the photo above, bloom­ing in the ex­tra­or­di­nary gar­dens that cover Isola Bella, an is­land in Lake Mag­giore, in the shadow of the Ital­ian and Swiss Alps, owned since the 15th cen­tury by the Bor­romeo bank­ing fam­ily and fur­ther tes­ta­ment to the plant-hunt­ing ob­ses­sion of many of the lead­ing fam­i­lies of Europe and Bri­tain. The gar­dens also demon­strate how ef­fec­tive mass plant­ings of the one species can be. Ah, to be so dis­ci­plined. PRUN­ING hy­drangeas in late win­ter is sim­ple. First re­move any cross­ing, un­tidy or spindly limbs at the base of the plant. Then prune, to two sets of fat buds, the stems that flow­ered dur­ing the pre­ced­ing sum­mer. Prop­a­gate by tak­ing sec­tions with three sets of nodes from these prun­ings. Scape a lit­tle of the outer layer of tis­sue from the base of each cut­ting and plunge into a pot of prop­a­gat­ing soil. Wa­ter, cover in plas­tic and leave in a warm but pro­tected spot.

In less than a year you will have flow­er­ing pots to bring in­side at Christ­mas, or to give as gifts. Or plant cut­tings di­rectly into the ground to beef up the borders.

I also prune as I pick the flow­ers in sum­mer: hy­drangeas last for days if plunged im­me­di­ately into a deep vase or bucket of wa­ter. Blooms that have been left on the bush to fade and dry can be picked and sprayed for ta­ble dec­o­ra­tions or wreaths. Fol­low daily gar­den tips and tricks on twit­ter.com/hol­lyk­er­forsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Sea­sons in My House and Gar­den, is out now.

HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

Now is the time to prune those hy­drangeas

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